On the eve of the 2015-2016 season, the NBA and the basketball world are in mourning.
Yesterday’s news that Flip Saunders - the head coach, president of basketball operations and part owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves - passed away was shocking to many, especially since we’d been told in August that his Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was considered “very treatable and curable.”
He learned that he had cancer as he was making preparations for this summer’s NBA Draft, where Saunders and the Wolves made the moves to select Kentucky’s coveted prospect Karl-Anthony Towns and swung a draft day deal to acquire Duke point guard and Minnesota native Tyus Jones.
The Wolves have been the league’s worst team for some time, but Saunders’ vision and coaching acumen promised to change things around in the years ahead. In a short time, he assembled one of the most interesting young rosters in the league, highlighted by the emerging young superstar Andrew Wiggins.
Saunders brought in seasoned vets Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince to add some leadership, professionalism and guidance to an intriguing squad that includes Towns, Jones, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Adreian Payne and Gorgui Deng.
The potential combination of Wiggins on the perimeter and Towns down low is a big reason for optimism around the state of Minnesota and a franchise that has struggled since Saunders left during the 2004-2005 season.
Flip Saunders first popped on my radar when Kevin Garnett played as a rookie with the Timberwolves in ’95-’96. I began to seriously study his work on the sidelines when Stephon Marbury joined the franchise out of Georgia Tech that next season.
They quickly became one of my favorite teams to watch, as Garnett, Marbury and Tom Gugliotta led the franchise to their first-ever playoff appearance. Despite losing Gugliotta to injury halfway through the next season, Steph and KG looked like the devastating dynamic-duo heir apparents to Scottie and MJ, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp and John Stockton and Karl Malone.
With KG putting up 19 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and four assists per game while Marbury morphed into Starbury while averaging 18 points and nine assists, the Wolves achieved their first winning season ever, finishing 45-37.
That squad showed me how good of a coach Flip Saunders really was, especially after Gugliotta got hurt. Flip did an outstanding job of blending the remainder of the roster around his two young stars, coaxing outstanding contributions from the likes of Anthony Peeler, Stanley Roberts, Tom Hammonds, Cherokee Parks, Chris Carr and older veterans Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter.
Prior to Saunders’ college teammate Kevin McHale, the team’s vice president of basketball operations at the time, assigning Saunders the head coaching duties in addition to his responsibilities as the franchise’s general manager, the Wolves had lost 60 or more games for four consecutive seasons.
But that changed with Flip on the sidelines. They went on to reach the playoffs eight consecutive years, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. That squad, headlined by KG, Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell and Wally Szczerbiak, with solid contributions off the bench from Gary Trent and Fred Hoiberg, won 58 games.
They played the Lakers, which featured Shaq, Kobe, Derek Fisher, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, extremely tough in those conference finals, but ultimately lost, four games to two.
In his first stint in Minnesota, Saunders compiled an overall record of 411-326, transforming them from a laughingstock to a legitimate title contender. In his next coaching stop, he took the Detroit Pistons to three straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Some might have suggested that Kevin McHale, his friend and former college teammate, gave him a gift when he hired him to work with the Timberwolves in 1995, but they would have been terribly wrong in that assessment.
Saunders wasn’t given anything in his coaching career. He earned what he later achieved through the dues that he paid along the way up the ladder, beginning with his first job, a four-year stint at Golden Valley Lutheran College, where his squads went 92-13, including an unblemished 56-0 record at home.
He was an assistant coach at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, and at Tulsa for seven years before becoming the head coach of the Rapid City Thrillers in the old Continental Basketball Association.
He won two CBA championships with the La Crosse Catbirds, where he served as the team’s general manager and president as well. He also coached the Sioux Falls Skyforce for a year before joining the Timberwolves.
Saunders has the second-most wins as a coach, 253, in the history of the CBA.
In his 17 years as an NBA Head Coach, Flip was 654-592, which is even more impressive when you consider the atrocious teams he inherited with the Wizards during the transition away from the Gilbert Arenas era toward the current John Wall era.
The outpouring of love and affection from his former players tells us all we need to know about the man.
On his Instagram account yesterday, Stephon Marbury wrote, “In 1996 Flip became a father figure and my first NBA coach. Wow how fast time blows by. Our conversations were so meaningful in ways that helped me understand the game of life by explaining the game of basketball. Your kind soul and loving ways helped me understand how to play the most important position in the sport of basketball. You gave me not only the chance to perform at a high level but a chance to communicate my thoughts on the game. You taught me how to play the pick and roll but you also taught me how to pick up and roll with the good and bad in the life… I thank you for giving me unconditional love as if I was your son when I was so young. It was so needed as KG and I needed all of it to get where we are now…I know you will RIP because you did all of what you did on earth in your lifeline. I say #FlipForever as we all grow from your teachings and messages. I LOVE YOU and I'll miss you until we meet again.”
John Wall posted on his Instagram, “The sting of losing another loved one to cancer doesn't get any easier. My thoughts & prayers are with the Saunders & Twolves family. Coach Saunders guided me into this league, he believed in me and taught me what it takes to be a good player and a better man. RIP Coach.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released the following statement, “The NBA family is mourning today over the tragic loss of our friend and colleague, Flip Saunders. With more than 40 years around the game, 20 of them in the NBA, Flip’s untimely passing has left a gaping hole in the fabric of our league. Flip was a beloved figure around the NBA, nowhere moreso than in Minnesota, demonstrating a genuine and consistent passion for his players, his team and the game.”
Flip Saunders was 60 years old.
He might be gone in the flesh, but his basketball spirit lives on, in all of his former players, and in this current Timberwolves roster.
I’ll be watching Ricky Rubio and Tyus Jones with a little bit more attention this year while they create those scoring opportunities for Wiggins, Towns, Kevin Martin, Garnett, Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica and the rest of the squad, interested in the maturation process as they inevitably learn and grow towards their promising future.
And in a couple of years, when they return to the playoffs, Flip will be smiling down at what he put together – his parting gift to the NBA, basketball lovers and the fans of Minnesota.